Frances Mayes, in her book The Discovery of Poetry (the text I use in my Creative Writing course), warns young poets that “a hazard of rhyme is that a steady adherence to a rhyme scheme often forces extra, inappropriate words into the poem in order to fit the plan.” I’ve found that a high school student will often write a poem that contorts to a rhyme scheme instead of allowing the rhyme scheme to emerge organically from the subject matter. When I come across an example of this, I’m reminded of the famous Michelangelo quotation: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” A young poet will want to force a statue out of the block of stone that isn’t inherently there, and as a result, the stone usually crumbles.
Since I teach several literature courses as well as Creative Writing, I see students make the same mistake with their essay writing. They desperately want me to tell them the correct formula—”rhyme scheme,” if you will—for writing an A+ essay. And time and again, they submit papers which adhere to the blueprint method—thesis goes in this slot, body paragraphs in this slot, conclusion in this slot, etc.—that they learned years ago, presumably in middle school. That’s fine for six and seventh graders, but not for seniors—or even sophomores—in a college preparatory school.
Over the past few years, I’ve finally understood something about myself. All through college and graduate school, even though my heart was in creative writing, I allowed myself to be convinced that it wasn’t nearly as important as analytical writing—or even that the two had anything to do with one another. I say that “I allowed myself to be convinced,” because that’s the pervasive message that my education was sending me. It was only when my professors allowed me to step out of the prescribed analytical essay and respond creatively, or allowed me to be more creative with my analytical essays that I really felt free—and did my best work. I was fortunate enough to have some wonderful teachers who understood that I needed to respond this way. All the same, I felt as if I were getting a way with something, flying under the academic radar, so to speak.
I worry that today we’re still sending this same message to our students. Of course, we must teach them to analyze, assert, and defend their positions on literature (or any topic for that matter), but we often teach it as a reductive act, not a creative act—and we do this because of the ever increasing pressure by colleges—and as a result, parents—to quantify written work.
When students want to know what the correct formula for writing a good essay is, I can’t tell them, because it’s wholly dependent upon what literary work they are analyzing or what position they’re arguing. The analysis of poem A may require a very different kind of paper than the analysis of poem B. The subject must dictate the structure and direction of the argument. I can only tell them what an essay or parts of an essay should accomplish, but I can’t tell them that there’s one right way. But, hey, can you blame them for being frustrated with that answer when they’re faced with the “all important” standardized tests—SATs and APs—which are developed and structured, at least in part, to quantify writing?
So, when I read student poetry where the rhyme is forced and awkward, or when I read a dull, formulaic essay, I’m upset, not just because the kid isn’t “getting it,” but because he or she is the product of a system, a system which I’ve at times promoted myself, that from the top down, has been designed to quash creativity and undermine vibrant argumentation, a system where structured analysis is serious and creative writing is merely cute—and the two are thought of as absolute opposites.
Therefore, my question is: If indeed the source of this problem is this desire by academic institutions to quantify writing, then where does this impulse to quantify come from? You might argue that these institutions are dealing with a overwhelming influx of applicants and that they have to create a efficient system for sorting out the wheat from the chaff. Okay, I get that, but then why does this same mentality continue on through undergrad and then graduate school, on into the workplace, the home?
I fear its something deeper in our culture, perhaps in our world. We see nothing but chaos and believe that it’s up to us to bring it to order; we don’t believe in any intrinsic order to the universe; we don’t believe in anything at all. It’s a deeply ingrained post-modern mindset. I believe this is wrong-headed. Nature, the everything of everything, has a magnificent and complex order to it, but we don’t spend enough time with it to notice it. As Wordsworth wrote in 1807:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune.
As teachers we need to guide our students to seek out the order in nature, in the world even, and highlight it. We need to disabuse students of the notion that we alone are the great order makers of the universe; it’s egotistical and dangerous. We want them to write arguments in tune with their subject matter. We want them to write papers and poems, like Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much with Us,” that uncover the rhyme that’s already living in the stone.